When friends hear that you’ve taken a guide school they typically want to get a “deal” on a rafting trip. Many will say something to the extent, “I can get a group of friends together and we’ll pay you under the table to take us rafting.” At first glance that seems like a great idea. If six people come in your raft and they all throw in $30 to $40 that ends up being a couple hundred dollars tax free for the day. However, this is considered illegal outfitting, also known as a “pirate trip” or an illegal rafting trip. After looking at the risks of running this type of rafting trip, I believe most people will consider it not worth the short-term gain in income.
Requirements to Legally run a Commercial Rafting Trips
To legally take people on a rafting trip, the guide needs to have a commercial permit or be working for an outfitting business that has a permit with the appropriate government agency to run the section of river they are floating. The most common is a permit with the BLM of Forest Service. If a company were to run a commercial trip on a day they were not legally entitled to launch it would be considered non-compliance with their permit rather than a pirate trip.
Legal Private Trips
A legal private trip is where the costs are shared equally among all participants. Everyone pitches in equally for the cost of the trip. It is also required to have the proper private trip permit for the river.
Pirate (Illegal) Trips
Any trip that is not a commercial or a legal private trip is a pirate trip. This includes someone taking a tip from their friends after taking them on the river, amortizing (renting) your boat while taking friends on the river, or having some other agreed upon compensation for taking people down the river. Any time the costs are not shared equally it is considered a pirate trip.
If a guide were to borrow a raft from the commercial company they work for and have some friends give them a little cash to go rafting this would also be considered an illegal trip.
Legal Ramifications of an Illegal Rafting Trip
Depending upon where you get caught running an illegal trip the criminal charges can vary between a class A (just below a felony) and class B misdemeanor. Either means a permanent record that could affect future employment. Punishment is a fine between $1,000 and $10,000 and may include up to 6-12 months in jail for a first offense. There can be a mandatory appearance in front of a federal judge so there are also typically costs for a lawyer. In Idaho, one is also culpable for all investigative fees by the enforcing agency including mileage and work time. This can be another $10,000 to $20,000 in fees.
Your gear for running the trip can be confiscated and held for around a year until after the trial. If you were to be prosecuted in California for illegal outfitting and are also a guide in Idaho you will most likely be punished twice. The Idaho Licensing Board expects you to report your violation to them. The administrative board will fine you up to another $5,000 and consider limiting, suspending or revoking your guide license.
The Really Ugly
While all of the legal ramifications sound bad enough, things could be worse. If someone gets injured on an illegal trip or on even an outfitted trip on a day the company is not permitted to run the river, insurance companies may not cover the costs. Umbrella policies and other policies designed to protect individuals and outfitters cannot be depended upon to cover an incident that occurs for an unpermitted activity. If you are guiding an illegal trip for an outfitter or friend and get hurt you will not be covered by workers compensation.
While it sounds nice to hook up some friends with a cheap river trip, that feeling changes when something goes wrong. If there is an injury the situation can get messy quickly. Government officials could get involved. Your raft and gear could be confiscated. You could get prosecuted and have to go to court. At the same time the “friend” could sue you in civil court where no insurance company would have your back since you were engaged in criminal activity. Finally, there is your relationship with the rafting community. Many commercial outfitters frown on pirate boating and if you are seen to be running these types of trips it will be much more challenging to get traditional guiding work.